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How did you become a.... Collections Manager?

15 December 13 -- jsuess
Contribution from Eliza Howlett, Collections Manager, Earth Collections, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

I considered a number of different careers before moving into museum work. All through school I imagined myself becoming a doctor, and I chose my A levels with that in mind. I actually started at Cambridge, but quickly realised it wasn’t for me and moved to Cardiff the following year to start a degree in nursing, thinking this might bring me into closer contact with patients. There were many things I enjoyed about the course, particularly the final year when we were taught ward management and were working almost fulltime, but somehow it didn’t feel like the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Soon after graduating I visited a careers counselor, and after completing various questionnaires it seemed that everything pointed towards three alternatives (all of which really appealed): museums, libraries or journalism.

I started paid work at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and voluntary work at the Museum of Natural History, and immediately noticed how my heart lifted each lunchtime as I walked from the library to the museum, which probably gave me the biggest clue as to which way I wanted to jump. Bit by bit, voluntary work in the museum moved into paid work, first in Environmental Archaeology and later in Geology, which is where I’ve been ever since. One of my first jobs was cleaning and sorting fossils from the Middle Jurassic of Stonesfield (the locality of Megalosaurus bucklandii, the first dinosaur ever to be described) and it’s still one of my favourite collections because there’s just so much variety, from snails with original colour bands to crocodiles and pterosaurs. Today, as Collections Manager for Earth Collections, I look after the museum’s half a million or so fossil specimens, which involves anything from acquisition and cataloguing to exhibitions, public events and working with researchers.

The things I enjoyed in nursing, particularly working with people, are the same things that give me pleasure in my current job, but with the added benefit of having lots of specimens to play with! There is a great satisfaction in getting to know a collection really well, and the picture you build up of what those specimens can tell us seems to satisfy the scientific curiosity that led me to medicine in the first place. I also have an interest in special needs, and have recently been working with a school for children with Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties, first taking a student for work experience, and then having him back once a fortnight over the course of a year to work on his Geology GCSE. I have taken several geology courses, and do a lot of reading, but most of my knowledge has come from the sheer number of specimens that have passed through my hands over the years. A former colleague used to say that you’re only as good a geologist as the number of fossils you’ve seen, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

If I had any advice for other people interested in getting into the field it would be first and foremost to see what opportunities you can find for volunteering. There is a lot to be said for museum studies courses, and if I was starting out now I would probably go down that route, but I also think different people will find the path that suits them best. It’s a very tough world at the moment when it comes to finding museum jobs, and I don’t think there are any easy answers. Looking to the future, my plan is certainly to continue working with specimens, but more than anything I would like to be part of the movement to make museums more outward-looking, using specimens and the knowledge associated with them in exciting new ways that benefit people on a whole range of different levels, from science to storytelling to general well-being.

Museum Matches event organised by Eliza which brought students to the museum after hours to meet with curators and get a personal introduction to the collections - can you spot Eliza???

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